Saint of the Day – St. Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions
November 24 is the feast day of the Vietnamese martyrs, St. Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions. He was born Ahn Tranh around 1795 in northern Vietnam. At the age of twelve, his parents moved to the city of Hue. St. Andrew Dung-Lac was instructed by a lay catechist, who also gave him the basic education that was denied to poor children like the young Ahn Tranh. His baptismal name was Andrew and he became a catechist. Later, in 1823, he was ordained a priest. After imprisonment and repeated torture, he was beheaded on December 21, 1839 for the crime of being a parish priest. St. Andrew’s 116 companions include those martyred between 1820 and 1862. They include bishops, priests, laity and 2 dozen Spanish and French missionaries. Many of these martyrs had been declared blessed. However, Pope John Paul II declared all 117 as saints in 1998.
The policy of the kingdoms that would later become Vietnam was to exclude foreigners and their influence. Catholicism came to the region by way of the Spanish and the French. Jesuits translated the Bible into Vietnamese. Being a Christian was seen as a dangerous link to the outside, tied to powerful empires seeking to advance their interest in southeast Asia. Despite the persecution and absence of clergy, the faith spread and endured. Catholics became a substantial minority, including around 5% of the population. French rule in late 19th century Viet Nam brought a degree of security and status to Catholics. The Communist takeover of the northern part of the country by Ho Chi Minh in 1954 caused an exodus of Catholics to the south, where they received preferential treatment by the ruling elite, typified by the Catholic Diem family.
The corruption and oppression of the Diem regime led to protests by Buddhists and the eventual overthrow of the government. Catholics were caught up on both sides of this struggle. The fall of South Vietnam to the Communists in 1975 led to 30 years of brutal repression. The canonization of St. Andrew Dung-Lac and the other Vietnamese martyrs by Pope John Paul II in 1998 marked the beginning of overtures by the Vatican to begin a dialog. By 2003, substantial progress had been made. In January 2007 the Vietnamese Prime Minister visited the Vatican and began the process of establishing diplomatic relations and better, if not yet ideal, conditions for the Church in Viet Nam.
This opening out to the world by Viet Nam coincides with the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States and the emergence of Viet Nam in the age of globalism. Vietnamese Catholics are now part of a wider controversy about the independence of Christian churches in Asia. There are also important theological issues regarding the unique Asian experience of the faith and its relationship to much larger Asian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.
How does one’s membership in a worldwide church effect one’s own sense of identity and culture? To the extent that we as Christians experience the faith in our own culture are we limiting it? What is the role and importance of non-Christian faith traditions in our world? St. Andrew Dung-Lac and the Vietnamese martyrs lived the tension of these questions and witnessed to them with their lives. These questions now belong to us.